04/03/2013 4:08PM

Keeneland: Wise Dan's return spices up already strong spring meet

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Tom Keyser
Wise Dan will make his first start of the year in the Maker's 46 Mile on April 12.

LEXINGTON, Ky. – As if any meet at Keeneland has ever been found wanting for added oomph, here’s a little something extra for the 2013 spring meet: Wise Dan will make his first start since being named the 2012 Horse of the Year, a coup indeed for a track the popular gelding has always called home and where an uncommon enthusiasm for racing reigns regardless of who might be running.

“We’re excited as can be about getting him started back,” said Charlie LoPresti, who has trained Wise Dan for owner-breeder Mort Fink at Keeneland from the outset of the gelding’s remarkable career. “Funny, but I think the horse is even more ready than we are.”

Before Wise Dan returns to action next Friday, April 12, in the Grade 1 Maker’s 46 Mile, fans will have to suffer through a week of what Keeneland marketers long have touted as “Racing As It Was Meant to Be.”

The 16-day meet starts Friday with an assortment of ridiculously good races, ranging from a maiden turf route replete with blue-blood pedigrees (race 6) to an impossible-to-handicap Polytrack sprint allowance sprint (race 8) to an extremely deep 25th running of the Grade 3 Transylvania Stakes (race 9). All drew large fields as linchpins in a terrific 10-race opener, which incorporates the Transylvania into a late pick-four wager (races 7-10) with a $200,000 pool guarantee sponsored by TVG.

“We anticipate the horsemen’s response being fantastic once again,” said Rogers Beasley, longtime director of racing at Keeneland. “One of the main reasons they enjoy coming here so much is the way the fans embrace racing. The horsemen have a real appreciation for that.”

Typifying the outpouring of entry-box support is the $500,000 Ashland Stakes, the first of five Grade 1 events on the spring schedule. Sixteen 3-year-old fillies are on the Saturday program for the 76th running of the Ashland, although only as many as 14 will be permitted to run (two more comprise an also-eligibles list) in the 1 1/16-mile Polytrack race.

Trainer Mark Casse will send out the top two earners in the Ashland field, Spring Venture and Spring In the Air, whose respective one-two finish in an exhibition race last month over the synthetic surface at the Ocala Training Center in Florida has both fillies on their toes for their final would-be prep for the May 3 Kentucky Oaks. The Ashland offers 100 points to the winner in the new system being used for eligibility into the Oaks field.

“The good thing about our fillies is they both have proven synthetic form,” said Casse, referring especially to a victory by Spring In the Air last fall in the Grade 1 Alcibiades Stakes. “That kind of experience is a big plus, I think.”

The Ashland lineup includes another half-dozen fillies from whom breakout efforts would not necessarily qualify as major surprises, those being Tuttipaesi, Nipissing, Private Ensign, Kitten’s Point, Wave Theory, and Emollient. Even longer-priced Ashland fillies such as Broken Spell and Magical Moon were good enough to finish second and third last fall in the Alcibiades.

“This came up a heck of a test for everybody,” Casse said.

The $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes – the richest of the four remaining Grade 1 races, all of which follow in short order next weekend – will offer 100 points to its winner toward Kentucky Derby eligibility.

The Blue Grass, the annual spring highlight, anchors a blockbuster April 13 program that also will include the Grade 1, $300,000 Jenny Wiley; the Grade 1, $300,000 Madison; the Grade 3, $175,000 Commonwealth; and the Grade 3, $100,000 Shakertown. That program comes the day after Wise Dan will be unveiled in the Maker’s 46 Mile, a $300,000 race in which he is expected to face the likes of Data Link, Silentio, and Suggestive Boy.

Perhaps the most notable stakes during the post-Blue Grass segment of the meet is the Grade 3, $200,000 Coolmore Lexington Stakes, which is set for April 20 as a so-called “wild card” race worth 20 Derby points to the winner.

Overnight purses at Keeneland have been substantially enhanced for the first time in years, with maiden races for 3-year-olds now worth $58,000 (up from $50,000) and maiden races for 2-year-olds up to $52,000 (from $50,000). Allowance races also have undergone similar hikes, with the richest of four Friday allowances (race 5) being worth $68,000. Keeneland racing secretary Ben Huffman estimated per-day purses will average about $615,000.

Keeneland held a Wednesday press briefing as an open forum on several topics, including the traffic headaches that will be created by the major construction project under way on Versailles Road (U.S. 60), the main thoroughfare in and out of the track; the implementation of a new, far-reaching fan-education program designed to ease and enhance the ontrack wagering experience for bettors; and the introduction of handicapper Katie Mikolay Gensler, who will be teamed with longtime fan favorite Mike Battaglia in giving on-air analyses and pointers throughout every program. Gensler, a native of suburban Chicago, previously has worked in similar capacities at Hawthorne, Presque Isle Downs, and Fair Grounds.

Kurt Becker, the only person to call races at Keeneland since a public-address system was first used during the spring of 1997, will be back in the booth for the 33rd straight meet.

First post daily is 1:05 p.m. Eastern, with the schedule designed to avoid conflicts with racing at Aqueduct.